David Post: The need to ‘widen the lanes’ on internet is growing

Published 10:13 pm Saturday, May 13, 2017

What’s all the fuss about widening I-85?

For that matter, why build more interstate highways?

They were designed to move the machinery of war more quickly. If interstate highways are not packed with convoys of military equipment and soldiers, why should government pay for them?

Why not rely upon the private sector to raise the capital, develop and manage the interstate system, and charge user fees? Fast lanes around the nation charge $1 or more per mile in high traffic. Most people choose to save the money and plod along in moving parking lots. But even those highways are built with government dollars.

A mere 200 years ago, the fastest way to move information and other stuff was on a horse. OK, smoke signals, yodeling and homing pigeons were quicker.

Then along came trains, cars and airplanes. And electricity and radio signals. All moving information and stuff faster and faster.

About 25 years ago, another war tool surfaced for public use. The internet.

As a nation, we decided that everyone should have access to electricity, water, highways and schools but not to the internet. Take away the internet, and much of the education infrastructure, many jobs, much of the healthcare and legal systems and many government services would collapse. Communication of simple information would take hours or days rather than nanoseconds.

In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress attempted to meet two, somewhat competing goals: encourage internet development through private sector competition while avoiding a “digital divide.” Theoretically, we don’t want a nation of internet haves and have-nots, or big cities with great internet and small and rural communities with no or poor internet.

Compared to highways, early internet technology was made of copper cable with multiple limitations, environmental implications and short life spans, similar say, to dirt and one- and two-lane roads. High-speed fiber optic broadband is made of glass strands with information traveling at the speed of light, being eco-friendly, and with long life spans, comparable to Ferraris on 50-, 100- and 200 -ane highways.

The private sector pursues profits for their shareholders. Governments provide services to everyone. Big profits await in New York and LA but financial difficulty (and shareholder discontent) await in Faith and Spencer. Consequently, 200-lane highways are developed in large metro areas, while small towns and rural communities are stuck with dirt and one-lane roads.

Ten years ago, Salisbury looked ahead, and decided to build its own 200-lane super highway through every street in the city. Did the private sector build even a competing 50-lane highway in Salisbury? No. Not an inch. But, they spent millions on lobbyists to convince state legislators to prohibit municipal governments from building their own superhighways and to punish Salisbury for having done so.

With Fibrant, Salisbury certainly made plenty of mistakes, but that’s not what this is about.

With a new administration in Washington, the national mood surrounding municipal broadband has changed from optimism to uncertainty. Will the federal government provide funding for broadband development? Probably not. Will states? Probably not? Will municipalities? Most lack the financial capacity and are constrained by state laws — written by big internet provider lobbyists — from developing their own systems.

Do average homeowners need 1 gig (or 10 gig) service? Not today. But soon. Homes are getting smarter with multiple computers, tablets, TVs, streaming movies, cell phones, security systems, thermostats, lighting, robotic vacuums and smart appliances. Forgetful shoppers, like me, can look inside their refrigerator with their cell phones as they walk the aisles at Food Lion. TV and video are becoming more internet-based.

Imagine being able to turn on only one light or one appliance at a time in your house. That’s the difference between copper cable and fiber optics.

Do schools need broadband? Done right, yes. One example: imagine every class being broadcast simultaneously. Students at home could stay on track.

Fibrant could monitor traffic and signals on every road and at every intersection simultaneously. Police surveillance could be enhanced. Implementations in low-income neighborhoods would allow every student to have internet access 24/7. Downtown should and could offer free WiFi. We could host a hackathon. Digital healthcare allows doctors to do biometric testing and other tests on patients in their homes through their tablets or phones.

Small towns and communities around the nation are begging for broadband. The have-nots are seeing their economies, home values and tax bases shrink.

Salisbury has a 200-lane highway. Though we brag about it, we don’t use it because we have no strategy. Fibrant has a WOW factor. We have a red Ferrari parked in the garage, its engine roaring. It’s time to put it on that highway and open ‘er up.

David Post is a member of Salisbury City Council.